For Orkhan Ismayilov, coming to America to pursue an education has been the best and worst of times.
Ismayilov was 16 years old when he came, bright-eyed, to Alabama from Azerbaijan. He joined his oldest brother, Raul, who was here as part of a student cultural exchange program. Eventually, the two enrolled at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and on May 7, 2011, Ismayilov will graduate with bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice and political science. But Raul won’t be there; he died before completing his education.
“I know he’s in a better place,” said Ismayilov of the brother he adored.
Growing up in the southern part of Russia was a happy time for Ismayilov, he said. He was the social butterfly of the family, while his brother was the studious one. Education was stressed in their home. Their father has a doctorate in biology, and their grandfather has two doctoral degrees. Ismayilov was encouraged to learn several languages and read mountains of books.
At 17, Raul won a scholarship to study American culture and headed to Alabama. He moved in with his “American dad,” Cecil Teague, fell in love with the country and went to UAB to study business and finance.
Not long afterward, Ismayilov received the same scholarship and joined Raul. Teague also became his American dad, and UAB became Ismayilov’s school. On campus, the brothers would meet up to play basketball at the recreation center and picnic with friends on the Green. “I felt like, ‘This is where I belong.’”
Then, in 2007, Ismayilov got a call that his brother had been in an accident. Raul was riding his bike when he was hit by an oncoming car.
Ismayilov, who was 18 at the time, had to make medical decisions, sign papers and talk to doctors for his brother, who was lying in a coma. It was a scary position to be in, he said. “I had to step up and act like a 40-year-old man.”
When Ismayilov’s father arrived from Russia, the teen served as a translator for the doctors. During times when his brother’s prognosis was grim, Ismayilov found himself not telling his father everything. He didn’t want to crush the hope his father desperately held.
Ismayilov couldn’t drop out of school or reduce his course load during this tragedy. In order to stay in this country, he had to be in school full-time. He spent his nights sleeping and studying in Raul’s hospital room and days in class trying to concentrate.
Then, after 11 months in a coma, Raul became brain-dead, Ismayilov said. “I had never seen my parents hit rock bottom,” he said, “but when Raul died, they hit rock bottom, emotionally.”
Ismayilov insisted that his brother be buried in this country. “He loved it here,” Ismayilov said.
The summer after his brother’s death, Ismayilov thought about going back home to Russia for good. Being here was too much, living thousands of miles away from home and walking the same campus grounds his brother did. But his friend told him that there are two ways he could respond to Raul's death: become paralyzed by depression or push himself to succeed and make his brother proud.
Ismayilov was at a crossroads.
While saying goodbye to his parents at the airport, Ismayilov’s father said, “Orkhan, come with me. You don’t have to stay here.”
“No,” Ismayilov told him. “Raul would have wanted me to stay.” Then, he watched his parents board a plane and head back to their home country.
After that, Ismayilov dove into his studies. He was determined to make his brother proud. Slowly, things got better. He made friends who encouraged him, and this Saturday he will become a college graduate.
Late this past year, Ismayilov’s parents moved to Alabama to be near him. “This is where they belong,” he said.
When Ismayilov’s name is called during this weekend’s graduation ceremony, he won’t be walking across the stage alone, his mother told him; Raul will be there.
Ismayilov plans to continue his studies at UAB in the master’s of public administration program. He is considering law or politics as a career. Either would make Raul proud, Ismayilov said.